‘Interior silence’ is not a phrase I associate with Sarah Sands, until recently the editor of the BBC Today programme and formerly my superb deputy at the Daily Telegraph. All her friends love her worldly, witty talk. Yet The Interior Silence is the name of her new book, whose subtitle is Ten Lessons in Monastic Life. Sarah knows that the contrast between author and subject is intrinsically funny, and laughs at herself — her struggle to fast in Assisi, parasites mercilessly biting her face while she sleeps in her Coptic desert cell. She is epigrammatic about monasticism: ‘Effortlessness is hard.’ But she is also appealingly sincere. She does want to understand it. She does long to turn off her mobile, though she rarely succeeds. In Sarah’s Norfolk garden, partly walled by the ruins of a Cistercian nunnery, the mute stones speak to her. I like the way she describes her fleeting visits; but in a way they only deepen the mystery of monasticism. I have sometimes stayed in monasteries, and always come away refreshed, but their real secret seems to me to lie in what the visitor can never know — the lifelong commitment they exact. As often with deep things, there is not much to be said about the matter, because talking becomes a boast. Asking monks about it tends to elicit rather opaque or wry answers, as it does from old couples asked the secret of their happy marriage. Out in the world, we try to be the architects of our own lives, which never quite works. Monks do something quite different, working themselves, so far as humanity can, into the divine life. It must be terrifying, which is why so few attempt it and many who do, fail. But it makes sense, when you combine this Friday and this Sunday.
What is ‘conversion therapy’? In a recent debate in Westminster Hall, the Speaker did not call a single MP who opposed banning it, although some had applied to speak. In the pro-ban speeches, conversion therapy was defined as anything from praying for people to give up their same-sex lifestyle to ‘corrective rape’. No one properly examined whether many of these things, e.g. the rape, are already illegal or, e.g. drug treatments, forbidden by professional practice. Religious freedom issues were brushed aside. The Labour MP Stella Creasy said: ‘We should not have to choose between our religion and our sexuality, or between following the faith of our choice or the person we love.’ For the faithful, that cannot always be true, surely. For example, all mainstream religions would argue that people should not have sexual relations with a person who is married to anyone else, even if they love that person. Indeed, the formal position in most branches of Islam, Christianity and Judaism is that the only person with whom you may sleep is your opposite-sex husband or wife, and no one else, before, during or afterwards (unless you remarry in widowhood). Many believers want to pray and preach that believers should give up homosexual relationships. If such prayer and preaching were illegal, it would criminalise conscience. Ms Creasy has every right to disapprove, none to forbid. The impermissibility of conversion therapy depends on the method, not the idea. The government is confused here, with Boris Johnson reportedly saying that it must ban something — a weirdly illiberal view. Once you start banning things by law just because you don’t like them, you are creating a secular shariah.
Most human beings nowadays fly to go abroad (except during Covid, when few go anywhere), so we have forgotten how dependent we still are upon the sea. In the British, whose power was built on maritime trade and the Royal Navy, this oblivion is surprising. The accidental blocking of the Suez Canal reminds us of the reality. Eighty per cent of world trade, by volume, is carried by sea. There is probably more sea trade in this decade than ever before. The Chinese have not forgotten this. The ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ is central to China’s imperial Belt and Road Initiative. China is investing in ports all the way to Africa and Europe. From Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia, via Calcutta, Sri Lanka, and Djibouti, up through the Suez Canal to the Piraeus and Trieste, the deals have been done. A vast overland route now leads from China to the port of Gwadar in Pakistan so that Chinese goods can reach the Arabian Sea. One enormous ship can throttle the canal. One enormous country may soon acquire that power.
The fame of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, once very great as a writer, intellectual and free-minded Englishwoman abroad, is renewed in a new biography by Jo Willett. People are interested in the topical fact that she was the first vaccinator in this country. She got smallpox, and her brother died of it. While later accompanying her husband’s embassy to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople, she found that inoculation with the live smallpox virus was a custom of folk medicine there. She persuaded the embassy surgeon to inoculate her infant son. Returning to England, she made the same, rather nervous man inoculate her little daughter, Mary. It worked. The practice spread, and Lady Mary did a great deal to break down what we now call vaccine hesitancy. She was hooted at as an ‘unnatural mother’ for her pains. Her story delights me for two reasons. The first is that Lady Mary is the only woman to have contributed to the original Spectator of Addison and Steele. It was a witty letter to the editor (‘Smart Sir’), filling the entire issue 573, on the condition of widows: ‘You never reflect what husbands we have buried, and how short a sorrow the loss of them was capable of occasioning.’ The second reason is that I discovered last week that Mary Wortley Montagu is my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother. I descend from the inoculated little Mary — so I would not be alive today but for the marvels of early 18th-century medicine.